KAMPALA, UGANDA — Two years ago, Dorcas fled fighting in Democratic Republic of Congo for what she thought would be a more stable life in neighboring Uganda. After a two-day bus ride, she arrived in Kampala, the nation’s capital, with no friends, a little money and a lot of hope.
Today Dorcas, 23, lives with her 2-year-old daughter, her mother and her older sister in a congested, littered neighborhood. They squeeze into one room.
She has lived in three places since her move to Kampala, seeking safe, affordable housing. She says her rent now is 130,000 Ugandan shillings ($35.50) a month, but her Ugandan neighbors pay only 80,000 shillings ($22).
“Landlords always charge you more or increase the rent after a deposit once they notice you sound different or can’t speak the language,” says Dorcas, a tailor, who asked to not be fully identified because her father was killed in political violence in DRC and she fears for her safety. “It was a shock transitioning to this kind of life.”
Dorcas’ housing troubles are common among those who have escaped to Uganda to start a new life. Her challenges underscore a larger battle against discrimination in a country that hosts the most refugees in sub-Saharan Africa.
Uganda is home to nearly 1.4 million refugees and asylum seekers, including more than 867,000 from South Sudan and an additional 402,000-plus from DRC.
For years, people seeking protection from political upheaval and violence in nearby countries — such as South Sudan, DRC and Burundi — have run to Uganda, with its relative stability and generous services for refugees.
The flow of refugees from DRC stopped in March when Uganda closed its borders after announcing its first confirmed case of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Then in July, after a temporary opening of the border, more than 3,000 Congolese refugees poured into northwestern Uganda to escape fighting between armed groups in DRC’s Ituri province.
Most refugees are scattered around the country in resettlement camps, where they receive government services. About 4% of refugees live in Kampala. Unlike those in camps and asylum seekers, who also get state aid, refugees in and around Kampala are self-settled. Many Ugandans mistakenly believe they have enough funds to fend for themselves. But 85% of refugees interviewed, according to a 2018 study led by the city government, do not receive support from charities.
Instead, they struggle to find jobs and are often overcharged for health care, according to the study. Many don’t use government services because of language barriers. In school, children of refugees suffer taunts and name-calling.
More than 99% of refugees in Kampala pay rent. Many live in informal settlements that are unsafe, overcrowded and have poor sanitation, according to a 2019 report by the humanitarian research group REACH and the Norwegian Refugee Council. Advocates say it’s not unusual for 10 refugees to share a room.
“We struggle to work and pay the same taxes as Ugandans,” says Lucien Safari Jackson, a community leader for the advocacy group, Congolese Refugees Community in Uganda, Rubaga Division. “Refugees need housing support even if it’s just paying the right price.”
Patricia Lindrio, GPJ Uganda
Anna Masiyanja, 75, came to Uganda from DRC with her two children as a refugee in 1972. Masiyanja, who lived in northern Uganda before moving to Kampala in the late 1980s, says she has always lived in one-room houses in this country. And, she says, she has always paid higher rent than her Ugandan neighbors.
“After  years, you get used to being treated like a foreigner,” Masiyanja says. “There is no dignity for refugees here.”
Uganda has virtually no public housing, experts say, and as a result, landlords have a lot of leverage over tenants.
“If the industry remains private-sector-dominated and unregulated, vulnerable people like refugees will continue to be exploited,” says Odella Brian Paul, project officer for the nonprofit Shelter and Settlements Alternatives: Uganda Human Settlements Network.
The Kampala Capital City Authority, the government body that runs the city’s operations, has crafted a plan to broaden solutions for both Ugandans and refugees, rather than targeting only refugees.
“Refugees can receive basic interventions,” says Masereka Edison, the authority’s manager of business development and research. “But overall, entire communities should be included by providing services that benefit all members — like medicine in hospitals [and] improving schools, where both refugees and host communities go.”
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Parliament passed the Landlord and Tenant Bill last year that would ban unnecessary rent increases and evictions without notice. President Yoweri Museveni has yet to sign it.
Refugees are skeptical of the law.
“Existing laws have not helped us,” Jackson says. “Refugees are always discriminated against.”
But Odella says the bill would help.
“The gap is with local government,” he says. “Regulations have to be set, and people should know their rights. People end up in informal settlements because they are poor and have no voice.”
A few urban refugees do score good housing. Bahati Brigette Kwinja, who arrived in Uganda from DRC in 2013, lives in a safe neighborhood in a two-bedroom home. She says she found it with her church’s help after looking for 2 ½ years.
She now takes in evicted refugees.
“The location is good, and the price is okay,” Kwinja says. “I am aware most people in my community struggle, but they should know no situation is permanent.”
Patricia Lindrio is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Kampala, Uganda. She specializes in health and migration reporting.
Arthur Masimango, GPJ, translated some interviews from French and Lingala. Click here to learn more about our translation policy.